It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that sending electricity through your skull without knowing what you’re doing probably isn’t a smart move. Yet amazingly, scientists in the US have felt the need to issue an open letter urging people not to do neuroscience on themselves at home. In particular, they are asking members of the public to refrain from trying to stimulate parts of their brains with electrical currents, using a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
The practice involves placing electrodes on a person’s head in order to target specific brain regions, and is thought to be able to improve cognitive function. However, writing in the Annals of Neurology, the authors claim that in spite of the many benefits associated with tDCS, “there is much about noninvasive brain stimulation in general, and tDCS in particular, that remains unknown.”
As such, they claim to have an “ethical obligation” to alert “DIY users” to the potential risks of applying the technique to their own brains without professional supervision. For example, they explain that even though electrodes may be placed above certain brain regions, the current can flow to many other unintended areas, altering their function.
As a result, they say that any improvements brought about by tDCS could be offset by other less desirable side effects. “For example, tDCS can enhance the rate of learning new material, but at the cost of processing learned material, and vice versa, depending on the stimulation site,” the authors write. “Such tradeoffs are likely under-recognized, as most tDCS studies focus on only one or two tasks.”
The actual technique itself is also more complex than many laymen realize, and while it may look like all you have to do is sit there with some electrodes on your head, there’s actually more to it, which is why it should be left to the pros. For instance, because the brain’s ongoing activity can interact with the electrical stimulation, the effects of tDCS are likely to be highly dependent on what a person is doing while undergoing the technique. Therefore, “stimulation while reading a book, meditating, visually fixating on a point, watching TV, doing arithmetic, sleeping, or playing video games, could all cause different changes in the brain,” say the authors.
On top of all this, placing the electrodes in the wrong place or selecting the wrong current can also be pretty dangerous, and given that most people aren’t exactly experts in neuroanatomy, it goes without saying trying tDCS at home is just plain dumb.